Union workers at Ben & Jerry’s flagship ice cream shop in downtown Burlington, Vermont have unanimously ratified a contract with management. What was last year the first unionized Ben & Jerry’s location is now the first Ben & Jerry’s location operating under a union contract.
The agreement includes substantial wage increases. For example, starting wages increase from $14 to $20.75 per hour. Tipping is no longer a core part of compensation, and tips are no longer solicited. Workers also now earn paid time off, sick leave, leave of absence rights, and seven new holidays.
Workers at the Church Street location began organizing in April 2023 as Scoopers United, part of the larger Workers United union that has been organizing elsewhere in the service sector, including Starbucks and Trader Joe’s. Instead of a formal and lengthy union election process, Ben & Jerry’s agreed to a form of voluntary recognition called “card check,” in which a neutral third party certifies whether a majority of workers have signed cards joining the union. Through card check, management formally recognized the union at the end of May. The one-year contract was signed and ratified by members in December and went into effect January 1, 2024.
While it is the only “scoop shop” directly owned by Unilever (Ben & Jerry’s parent company), when workers started organizing last year, only managers were Unilever employees. All of the frontline workers were technically employed by a third party company, with the result being they had none of the usual employment benefits that Unilever offers its staff. According to Rebeka Mendelsohn, a former Ben & Jerry’s worker who helped lead the unionization campaign, “We had no sick time. We had no paid time off, no 401(k)s, no sort of insurance options even available to opt into.”
That first victory, shifting employers, was won even before contract negotiations began. “We felt pretty confident that Ben and Jerry’s would find a way to onboard all of us to be Unilever employees,” Mendelsohn said. “And we were definitely right.”
Ella, a shift manager and Scoopers United shop steward, said in a press release today, “I’m proud to be a part of a group of people who have all been passionate about this union from the start. Through this process, I think we have formed a relationship of mutual respect with Ben and Jerry’s and created a contract that fosters an equitable and collaborative work environment.”
The press release stated the new contract “is an exceptionally big deal, and we hope the company’s decisions throughout this process will inspire other companies to show their employees the same respect and serve as a new standard within the industry.”
Mendelsohn is now on staff at Workers United as an organizer, supporting Scoopers United and other workplace organizing efforts in the area, including Gaku Ramen and Black Cap Coffee, which are both Church Street establishments as well.
Mendelsohn sees the potential — and need — for strengthening worker rights and power across Burlington. “The owners of Church Street have conferences and associations,” she said. “They have so much influence in local politics and state politics. It’s just not right to not have some sort of equivalent for workers.”
High-profile union wins traditionally have spillover effects in other, non-union firms in the same sector: if workers can earn more at one business, employers nearby will feel pressure to increase wages and benefits, both to attract workers and fend off their own unionization attempts. A notable example can be found last year when the United Auto Workers won a historic contract with the Big Three (GM, Ford, and Stellantis). Shortly after the contract was announced, non-union auto manufacturers in the U.S. including Toyota, Volkswagen, and Tesla, pledged to increase wages in what organizers called “the UAW bump.”
It remains to be seen if workers in Burlington will experience a “Ben & Jerry’s bump” beyond the overall wage increases that service sector employers have offered since the pandemic began. But the last several years have proven the power of a good example: from Starbucks to Trader Joe’s to Church Street eateries, when workers win in one shop, word spreads and gives others the confidence to fight for and victories elsewhere.
Patrick is a writer and organizer based in northern Vermont. He is on the editorial collective for The Rake Vermont.